The Mother


By Ousmane Sembene

I have told you about kings and their ways of living; not all, by any means, but some of them. They succeeded each other from father to son, and the heir apparent was given a special education. Griots sang him the praises of his ancestors, their doings and exploits. Once crowned, an absolute ruler owing allegiance to no one, he became a tyrant (though not always). His attendants carried spittoons of chased silver, real works of art, or ceremonial pipes - some more than six feet long - that had bowls carved in the shape of human heads. Other attendants constantly waved fans made of ostrich and peacock feathers of rare colours. There were still others to sing his praises and to dance for his entertainment. All cherished a desire to see him burnt alive, for he was not a God but a despot with the power of life or death over his subjects. It was not unusual for him to condemn to death someone he thought to be lacking in enthusiasm for his particular task.

Fate strikes at those who tempt it! A law can be said to be just when it is made by the people. Now the king decreed that ‘no man shall marry a girl unless He be the first to spend the night with her’. A wicked law, of course. But no one opposes an absolute monarch.

He committed so many base actions that his ministers complained to the oracles, but all in vain. Their daughters submitted to the ruling when the time came; none dared to elude the obligation. The common people were resigned. All was going well for the king. Then one day a man whose origins no one knew came to marry the king’s daughter. ‘Is he going to do the same with her?’ everyone wondered. But that same evening the king repealed the accursed law.

For a time, all was well. The king appeared to calm down; but he was only biding his time in order to indulge his tastes. Deep within him was a smouldering anger. ‘The elders have raised a dam against my pleasure,’ he said to himself.

For many days messengers scoured the outlying districts under his authority, announcing that the king wanted to see all his subjects, the sick and the infirm included, under penalty of having all their goods confiscated. When everyone in the kingdom was present, he gave orders to kill all men over the age of fifty. As soon as he had spoken, the deed was accomplished. The earth became stained with blood. The sun dried up the blood, the wind blew over it and licked it, and bare feet obliterated the last traces; but the passage of time did not wipe out the memory in the minds of men . . .

Nobody dared defy this madman. He indulged his vices more than ever, taking not only girls about to be married but all who had reached marriageable age. Only a few mothers succeeded in preserving their daughters from this maniac’s sadistic lust.

(Glory to thee, woman, boundless ocean of tenderness, blessed art thou by thy flow of gentleness.)

The king, drunk but still not sated, journeyed in quest of fresh maidens. In his chief town no one was left who took his fancy. At the entrance to a village he halted for a drink, and then his surprise was so great that for a moment it quenched his thirst. He gave orders for the girl who had brought him the drink to be carried off. She was beautiful. On hearing her cries, her mother came running. (What could a woman do against servants six feet tall?) Nevertheless their strong arms failed to control her. A blow sent her to the ground. She was on her feet again in a moment, and clung to the king. But her struggles were of no avail. . .

Next day the mother found the place where the king was resting, surrounded by his attendants. She did not have to wait long. At the sight of this ugly old woman the king said, ‘Old one, if you have a daughter, take note that I don’t receive during the day.’

She looked him squarely in the eye. Her face was calm and impassive, and not a movement nor a gesture ruffled her bearing as she replied:

‘Sire, by the look of you, anyone would think that you have no mother. From the day you were born until now, you have contended only with women, because they are weak. The pleasure you derive from it is more vile than the act itself. I’m not angry with you for behaving in that way. Because you are a man and because a woman is always a woman, and so Nature wills it. I’m not angry with you for you do have a mother, and through mothers I respect every human being. Son of a king or of a slave, the mother bears a child with love, gives birth in pain, and cherishes this rending of herself in the utmost depths of her senses. In her name I forgive you. Hold women in respect, not for their white hairs but for the sake of your own mother in the first place and then for womanhood itself. It is from woman that all greatness flows, whether of the ruler, of the warrior, the coward, the griot or musician ... In a mother’s heart, the child is king . . . All these people around you have a mother, and in their time of grief or of joy she sees but her child.’

‘Kill her!’ the king yelled.

But no one moved. The woman’s words had gone home. The king roared and bellowed with anger, venting his spleen in a stream of vulgarities.

‘You were all witnesses when he used your sisters,’ the mother went on, without arrogance or pride. ‘On his orders your fathers were put to death. And now he’s putting his hands on your mothers and sisters. To look at you all, anyone would think you’d lost all sense of dignity.’

Beside himself with anger, the king suddenly stood up and gave the old mother a backhand blow that sent her reeling to the ground. He had no chance to do anything more, for he was seized and led away. For the first time, his subjects had been given the courage to revolt and put down their king.

Glory to all, men and women, who have had the courage to defy slanderous tongues. Praise to all women, unfailing well-springs of life, who are more powerful than death. Glory to you, coolies of Old China and the tagala-coye of the Niger plateau! Glory to the wives of seamen in your everlasting mourning! Glory to thee, little child, little girl already playing at being the mother . ..

The boundless ocean is as nothing beside the boundless tenderness of a mother.